The answers are in the questions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the single biggest event to confront the globe for the last one hundred years. The world has moved on in leaps and bounds since the last global pandemic, yet, we were caught unawares. There is no vaccine on the horizon and the world has seen over 440 000 people succumbing to the pandemic by 18 June 2020. The people that we normally look to for answers are unable to provide adequate responses. In South Africa the government, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, had been lauded, both internationally and locally, for the pro-active and timely interventions, they have undertaken. Since the initial measures announced by the government, the narratives have become quite diverse and divisive in regard to how soon the economy should be allowed to function normally, when learners should go back to school, to name but two. These contested narratives, often backed by some form of research or expert analysis, further highlight the levels of uncertainty about how we should navigate the immediate future. Instead of acknowledging that none of the narratives is absolute and certain we continue to push one narrative above another. It is only when we take the time to sit down and listen to each other that we begin to see other perspectives that might be as relevant as our own. The fact of the matter is that all our narratives are informed by underlying ideologies, of which we are often unconscious, that are embedded in our stories.
Instead of just listening to each other’s narratives, which will remain personal and contested, we should find ways to move beyond the need to provide answers. Many South Africans understand that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating an opportunity for us to press the reset button for the establishment of a more inclusive society that works for all the people. John Block, the author of Community, reminds us that, “Transformation comes more from pursuing profound questions than seeking practical answers.” We should be asking more questions that will facilitate conversations that will take the personal narrative beyond the self to benefit society at large. This piece is not an attempt to undermine the value and power of narratives, but a call to put our narratives at the disposal of the common good by turning them into questions. Questions that might be useful for taking us into a different future should promote possibility, ownership, commitment, respectful dissent and bringing our gifts to serve our community.
One such question could be, “What can I do to change my community, country?” This is different from wanting to pontificate about what others should or should not be doing. This question acknowledges that we are at a cross-road and that I am making a public declaration about wanting to be part of the solution. A second question that will make a huge difference is to ask, “What have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about?” This question is an effective antidote to the blame-game that many of us play. A third question that might be useful is, “What commitment am I willing to make that constitute a shift or risk that will take me outside of my comfort zone?” This question is critical if we want to shift the dominant paradigms of narcissism, self-interest and ‘what’s in it for me’. It is possibly the most difficult question to engage within an environment of extreme inequality, but if seriously engaged with will yield positive outcomes. A fourth question could be, “What is the gift I still hold in exile that I can bestow on my community?” A society that encourages and celebrate the gifts of all who belong to it is one that will minimize the focus on deficiencies and bring people in from the margins. Something can only be a gift if it is offered for the enjoyment of the recipient. Many other questions can be asked, but I hope that you get the message that questions open up spaces for engagement and solution-seeking processes.
Our biggest challenge in South Africa is that many of us think we have the answer to the complex challenges facing the country. Our obsession with certainty blinds us to other possibilities and keeps us trapped in a cycle of educated verbal brawling. We can, however, achieve a different outcome if we adopt a different view on ambiguity and uncertainty by grappling with questions instead of providing answers. South Africans would do well to heed the sage advice of Michael Marquardt, “Questions wake people up. They prompt new ideas. They show people new places, new ways of doing things.” South Africa is still a country in transition and we fool ourselves if we think that we have all the answers to deal with almost three hundred and seventy years of exclusion and inequality. We stand a better chance of getting answers by asking questions which might remove many of the limiting assumptions we hold of one another.
Stan Henkeman – Executive Director
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